Believers and the Servant, Part 3: Isaiah in Galations, Freedom in Christ
This article will explore the additional support that the prophecy of Isaiah gave to Paul’s argument—and how it brought urgency to the message.
So far, we have seen that the apostle Paul applied the prophecies in Isaiah both to himself and the believers. This application supported his own ministry and demonstrated his authority, and yet it also pointed towards the means of salvation. Salvation would be through the Lord Jesus Christ dwelling in his life—Christ would live in them. Works, therefore, could not save. But there was more. This article will explore the additional support that the prophecy of Isaiah gave to Paul’s argument—and how it brought urgency to the message.
The latter portion of Isaiah has numerous themes. At least one of those themes is incredibly relevant to Paul’s argument: throughout these last chapters of Isaiah, the prophet describes God’s work with His people using exodus language.
While these verses echo Israel’s trek through the Red Sea and the Jordan River, the next verse was about the redemption they experienced in the Exodus:
In the first exodus, Egypt was given for their ransom. Now, in this second exodus, Cush and Seba would be given. And so, the prophet speaks of Israel’s journey back from the nations:
This is a new exodus:
As a new exodus, it recalls the old exodus but simultaneously involves a new oppressor:
And yet this oppressor is just like Pharaoh:
Bringing all of this together, the servant songs of Isaiah paint a picture of God saving his people from bondage—bondage that is like Egypt, but a new oppressor. Somehow, Paul was showing that this exodus was about the believers.
WORKS-BASED RELIGION AND IDOLATRY
But how? What was the bondage like in Egypt? From what had these new believers been delivered? Paul explained:
“But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years!” (Gal 4:9-10).
They were delivered from their own tendency to slavish obedience to the Law! They followed the commandment without developing a relationship! Following the Judaizers was putting themselves back into slavery—as if they were deciding to return to Egypt and Babylon. But perhaps that didn’t sound that bad.
They were delivered from their own tendency to slavish obedience to the Law!
For us, sometimes familiarity with the exodus story prevents us from recalling the terror that the Israelites experienced at the hands of the Egyptians. Maybe it was the same for the Galatians. But Isaiah reminded the people of what Egypt was like: the oppressor showed no mercy, and the king was a tyrant.
Though it may not have seemed as if works-based religion presented a similar threat, this is how God viewed the Judaizers! This is the same condemnation that Jesus gave to a group of Pharisees focused on salvation by works—they bound burdens too heavy to bear on people (Matt 23:4).
They made people slaves and showed them no mercy. That’s the way that Scripture sees salvation by works. The ecclesial Israel was returning to slavery, just like what the Israelites demanded in the wilderness. And just like the Israelites of old, there was a further spiritual struggle.
Throughout the servant songs in Isaiah, the prophet emphasizes that God’s people are trapped in idolatry. God’s power is repeatedly contrasted with the power of idols (Isa 42:18-25; 44:9-28) because the people at the time struggled with following the worship of the nations around.
This is further indicated by the fact that Scripture declares that idols cannot see or hear, and those who make them are like them (Psa 115:8), and so God’s servant Israel is described in Isaiah as blind and deaf (Isa 42:19; 43:8). Isaiah repeatedly contrasts God with the blind and deaf idols—and because the people worship the idols, they too are blind and deaf. Yet, how could this apply at all to the first-century Galatians?
Literal idol worship had been cast aside in Judaism ever since the Babylonian exile. The Galatians were intent on worshipping the God of Israel. They were following the law that God had given to Moses. And yet, that is the crux of the argument here: just as the Israelites in Egypt worshiped the Egyptian gods, so the believers who were being freed from the Judaizers’ religion were still worshiping the Judaizers’ gods. They were still in bondage. They were still in spiritual Egypt and spiritual Babylon— still living in the land of the Judaizer and slaving away to the Judaizers’ God.
BUT WHO WAS THE JUDAIZERS’ GOD?
It was themselves. Because legalism is idolatry.2 Legalism takes God’s rightful place at the head of our religion and worship and replaces Him with our pride. We honor ourselves for keeping all of the commandments. We glorify ourselves when we check a commandment off of our to-do list.
We start to judge others who don’t follow our understanding of the commands— again displacing the Lord as the judge (Jas 4:11-12). But that was never what the law was meant to do. It was not to be an end in itself. It was not to be bondage! The law was to be part of their freedom— God gave it after they were freed from Egypt!
As Paul argues, it was to train them, as the children of God, to create Christ in them (Gal 3:24). And yet, the law in itself became the object of worship. It brought them right back to Egypt.
Instead, God’s people were to be free. But free to do what? Consider again the way that Isaiah writes about Israel and God:
This is about a God who will strengthen and uphold His people. It is about a God who is a savior to Israel, who leads them on an exodus out of slavery. Over and over, God is the deliverer of His people. Twice in the following few verses, God declares again that He is the one who helps them (v. 13, 14). He is the one who will provide water to the one who has none (v. 17). He will recreate the earth for the sake of His people (v. 18-19) so that those people will recognize that the Holy One of Israel has acted. God declares that He is active in the earth and knows the end from the beginning (v. 21-29). God is great, and no others are.
Again, God’s power is emphasized in the next chapter. He is mighty (Isa 42:13). He will recreate the earth (v. 15-16). And His salvation would go to the Gentiles (v. 1, 4, 6). This section of Isaiah focuses on God’s greatness, His salvation, and His power. Yet this glorious God is the one who declares that He will hold their hand. He is the one who states that Abraham was his friend. What is Israel free to do?
Israel has been freed from its bondage so that it can have a relationship with its God. It’s been given the freedom to love. There’s no love possible in slavery. And so, Christ had set them free—he could live within them, and in doing so, they could become God’s children. Isn’t that Paul’s argument in Galatians?
When we give in to works-based religion, we have set ourselves up as our own God.
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. (Gal 4:4-7).
In Christ, the Galatians had the opportunity to know God as a Father. They were free to have a relationship with the God of salvation. Instead, they were going in the opposite direction. They were returning to their slavery and leaving God’s family. This is the power of Isaiah’s prophecy: it creates the opportunity to parallel salvation by works with Egypt, Babylon, and idolatry.
This parallel powerfully reinforces the evils of works-based religion. When we give in to works-based religion, we have set ourselves up as our own God. In addition, using Isaiah also allows the apostle to emphasize the importance of a relationship in our worship of God. God has freed His people. He has provided salvation. And He has done this because they are the children of His “friend.” God wants us to know Him and to know Him intimately.
So, let’s wrap up what we have discovered in these three articles about Paul’s use of Isaiah in Galatians.
First, the presence of Isaiah in Galatians has opened up the possibility for us to see ourselves in Isaiah’s prophecy: we can be part of the one who proclaims salvation to the ends of the earth. Jesus can live and work in us. That is just not some abstract idea—it is real. Rather than simply being ourselves, we can have Christ living in us. We can see ourselves as part of the fulfillment of prophecy!
Second, Isaiah’s picture is powerful. We have been freed from Egypt and Babylon. How could we return to slavery by living a works-based religion? Instead, something so much better has been offered to us. Through Jesus, we can be the children of God. We can know Him. We can have a relationship with Him. We can leave the slavery of works and live by the motivation of love.
Simi Hills, CA
1 All Scriptural references from the English Standard Version.
2 Jason Hensley, Giving Grace (Seattle: Kindle Direct Publishing, 2020), 84-101